Over the past three years, the Tapp’s Arts Center has become a hub of arts activity on Main Street, drawing patrons for the monthly First Thursday art crawl and other arts-related events. In early June, it served as a venue for the University of South Carolina’s Savvy Musician in Action conference, hosting five contemporary classical ensembles from throughout the country. It also showcased the fake blood-soaked cast members of the Trustus Theatre production Evil Dead: The Musical.
But while the center has had little trouble drawing patrons for its various events, such events are typically free. Meanwhile, numerous artist studios, which are supposed to bring in revenue, sit empty. The result is that the center has not been profitable.
So, as of April 1, management of the center was officially taken over by the building’s owner, downtown developer Tom Prioreschi. A proponent for the redevelopment of Columbia’s downtown for years, Prioreschi has been a quiet yet influential player in drawing crowds back to an area that used to sit empty after 5 p.m. and on weekends. He’s hired a new director, Caitlin Bright, to right the ship.
Since it opened in 2011, the arts center had been operated and managed by Brenda Schwarz Miller, who started the business via a $175,000 loan from the city that was backed by Prioreschi. The fledgling partnership was based upon the idea that Miller would use the space to rent studios to artists and put in a photo shop, wood studio, frame shop, print shop and classrooms. There were also plans to return the former department store’s once-popular basement lunch counter to full operation.
“I’ve never wanted it to be anything other than a hub for Columbia,” Miller said during a May interview. “Art is for everyone and always will be for everyone. That will always be my mission.”
For Miller, the center was to be a safe haven for emerging artists who needed a jumping-off point and a source of practical information — like how to hang a show or write an artist statement.
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” says Miller, who ran Idyllwild Art Gallery for seven years. “I try to make connections for artists.”
Miller’s altruistic intent, however, didn’t line up with the needs of the real estate development company with which she had partnered. Where Miller may have been successful at creating a safe haven for artists on Main Street, her business sense came into question throughout the life of the arts center — and even before it opened. Concerns about Miller’s ability to turn a profit on the operation came up when Miller went to the City of Columbia for a loan to get the operation off the ground. Suddenly, the project became controversial, and the loan was approved by a slim majority of the granting committee amid turmoil among its members.
Today, many of the components of Miller’s plan have not materialized, including all four previously mentioned shops and the lunch counter.
While the artist studios and exhibitions became a reality that was much-appreciated by the cultural community, the center’s nonprofit status was still in question after having been filed in 2011. In the meantime the center was not performing well financially.
“This institution had success under the previous director in the form of quality [arts] programming,” says Caitlin Bright, who started as Tapp’s director April 1. “But it experienced some hardships in the past few months that created some negativity for its image, so we’ve been facing the task of how to effectively clean the slate.”
Bright, a University of South Carolina graduate with a degree in art history, criticism and conservation, left the state for New York after finishing school. She acquired a master’s degree in arts administration from New York University and went on to work for the Guggenheim Foundation. Later she worked as executive director of Momenta Art, a nonprofit gallery based in Brooklyn.
Underneath the quiet, thoughtful demeanor of the new Columbia resident lies a toolbox of experience in public art programs and gallery and artist management.
“Our goal here is to build audience, build the quality of programming, and build access to the arts through workshops, classes, social events and large-scale exhibitions,” Bright says.
Bright’s most immediate concern is the rebuilding of the Tapp’s Art Center’s identity through branding projects, like new signage and more engaging visual displays in the large windows.
But there are bigger ideas that she’d like to see put into action one day.
“My goal is to start recruiting contemporary and engaging exhibitions from Columbia artists and from national and international perspectives,” she says.
Though there are significant challenges in bringing in revenue, Bright sees signs that her vision can be achieved.
“We’ve had an increase in interest for renting studios, and I’ve been bombarded with people needing space to host classes,” Bright says. “I’ve also received a lot of calls from people asking for classes to take, so these are two needs that will obviously serve each other.”
Adopting what she calls a non-exclusive co-op, approach, Bright has continued the art center’s focus on building a community from within — a mantra that is continually expressed by the building’s tenants. As under Miller’s watch, artists still volunteer to watch the front desk, care for the facility and assist in hanging installation.
Such teamwork is key in Bright’s and Prioreschi’s vision of making Tapp’s a creative incubator space.
The Savvy Musician program, Bright says, highlights the point “that culture has an economic and community value.” She hopes to build on it, creating platform for discussion about arts and culture and its value.
Still, she understands the need to make money.
“We have a definitive bottom line,” Bright says, “and the model can work as long as the community accesses the resources we offer: [an] event space, studios, classroom facilities, and an artistic community to share your creativity.”
Toward that end, Tapp’s is working to further increase its visibility as an event venue.
One thing that does not seem to be changing about Tapp’s is the idea of the center as a place where artists are appreciated and can plug into the larger community.
“I always had gratitude that people came to the table to make this happen,” Miller says. “But you have to stay at the table.”
For now, Miller is taking time to assess her place within Columbia’s art community. She’s spending the summer at home with her young daughter and figuring out what’s next. It’s clear that even while laying low, Miller will have an ear to the ground for artists.
Time will tell if the shifting of personalities and players at Tapp’s Art Center will increase its reach and profitability, but in the meantime, it remains a safe place for artists to collaborate and create while paying cheap rent with Main Street exposure.
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